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The life of Lydia Mendoza, the 1st queen of Tejano music


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

John Yang: And now for Hispanic Heritage Month, we look back on the life of a Mexican American musician, whose music bridge styles and cultures to tell the stories of the working class, it's part of our series Hidden Histories.

During her seven decades singing career Lydia Mendoza was known by many nicknames, the Luck of the Border, the Songstress of the Poor, the Glory of Texas. Mendoza was the first queen of Tejano music, giving voice to the working class Texans and Mexican descent living along the border.

From the 1930s to the 1980s, she recorded hundreds of songs on more than 50 solo albums and public performances. Her clothes reflected her cultural roots. Her songs evokes generations of heritage.

Lydia Mendoza, Musician (through translator): Whether I'm singing okarito (ph), a waltz, a bolero, a Polka, or whatever it is, when I sing that song, it feels like I'm living that moment. I feel when I'm singing. If it's like a kurido (ph), I feel it. It's my feeling for every song I sing.

John Yang: Mendoza kept to the oral tradition of singing what audiences requested, drawing on her encyclopedic musical memory. In a 1986 interview, renowned Tejano composer and music producer Salome Gutierrez recalled asking Mendoza to sing a song her mother had composed decades before.

Salome Gutierrez, Composer and Producer (through translator): She told me I haven't sung this song and over 20 years, let me see if I remember the verses. But she started singing it without reading. She sang the 28 verses without making a mistake.

John Yang: Mendoza was born in Houston in 1916 to Mexican parents who were part of the wave fleeing the revolution. It was a musical family. Her mother taught her guitar when she was seven. She later took up the mandolin, the violin and eventually the iconic 12-string guitar.

Her family formed a band playing on street corners and restaurants wherever they could pass the hat. They were playing at a San Antonio outdoor market when a Tejano broadcaster heard Mendoza sing. He put her on his show as a guest. Listeners phone the station demanding an encore.

The host made irregular paying her $3.50 a week. We felt like millionaire she recalled years later. While still a teenager, Mendoza auditioned for bluebird records then part of RCA Victor. One of the songs she recorded that day, Mal Hombre became a hit on both sides of the border led to a record contract and was her signature tune for the rest of her career.

Mendoza continued performing into the 1980s. Singing in 1977 at President Jimmy Carter's inauguration. In 1999, a decade after a stroke entered her performing career, President Bill Clinton presented her with the National Medal of Arts.

Bill Clinton, Former U.S. President: With the artistry of her voice and the gift of her songs she bridged the gap generations and culture. Lydia Mendoza is a true American pioneer. And she paved the way for a whole new generation of Latino performers, who today are making all Americans sings.

John Yang: And in 2013, six years after she died at 91, she was honored with a postage stamp, a forever stamp, just as her contributions to Tejano culture will live on forever.

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